At least seven million Americans are long-distance caregivers. If you’re one of them, you already know that offering support when you’re not in the same city – or even the same state or country – is tricky. But you shouldn’t let miles stand in the way of contributing to a friend or family member’s well-being.

“Although it’s not without its frustrations, long-distance caregiving can be extremely rewarding,” says Barbara McVicker, a Columbus, Ohio-based speaker and author of Stuck in the Middle: Shared Stories and Tips for Caregiving Your Elderly Parents (AuthorHouse, 2008). “You can make a difference in your loved one’s life without having to endure the physical stress and exhaustion – not to mention the expense – that can come with frequent travel.”

Here are four ways to offer assistance from afar:

1. Identify VIPs (very important people). Get contact information for all of your loved one’s in-person support network, including family, friends, neighbors and medical professionals, and reach out to them regularly. “These people can serve as your eyes and ears. Not only can they comfort you by keeping you in the loop, they can add to your loved one’s safety net, too,” says Laurie Giles, a Shelton, Conn.-based attorney specializing in elder care issues.

2. Consider an initial fact-finding trip. If at all possible, schedule a visit to assess and determine your loved one’s needs. “It’s easier to get a true picture of how your relative or friend is doing when you’re face-to-face,” says McVicker. “It’s also a good time to have difficult conversations and decide serious issues, like whether it’s time to bring in a geriatric caregiver. You never want to wait until there’s a crisis to make big decisions.”

3. Get organized. “If you’re a primary caregiver for your aging parent or another ill family member, you’ll want to have financial, legal and medical documents ready and in one place (such as a file) so you can easily access them,” says McVicker. She and Giles recommend having copies of your loved one’s living will; health care power of attorney; financial power of attorney; bank and credit card information; social security card; all insurance documents; and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) forms, which you can obtain online or at a doctor’s office, so that you’re able to discuss their medical information with their physicians. Make sure that all appropriate forms have been signed and notarized within the state where your loved one is currently living.

4. Keep your expectations in check. The best thing you can do for yourself – and your loved one – is to not try to do it all. “Caregiving can be extremely stressful, and if you’re not careful, that stress can exacerbate chronic conditions like arthritis. It’s best to set limits for yourself – and stick to them,” says McVicker. “You’ll be happier with the outcome – and healthier, meaning you’ll be in a better position to offer effective care.” To locate community-based resources for an elderly parent or friend, visit The Eldercare Locator: www.Eldercare.gov. Other good online resources include: